Tag Archives: transvestites

My Favorite Movies: Glen or Glenda

Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.

Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.

Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.

Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.

As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.

Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”

Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.

Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.

All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”

Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.

Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.

This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?

It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.

Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.

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Happiness and drag kings

Recent blogging bursts from Ashley and myself have put me into a blogtastic kind of mood. And what better way to demonstrate that than by posting something here? However, I don’t have anything that specific in mind to talk about. Instead, I have two very, very general topics: one is a basic aspect of human life; the other is a beautiful, comparatively young art form. That’s right, sexuality and film. The interactions between the two form a huge area of study, so I want to try to zero in some especially interesting points, or maybe just ramble freely.

First, last night I watched a movie mostly about sex, Todd Solondz’s Happiness. I watched his earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse last year, and I definitely think it’s good preparation for the pitch-black comedy and fetid suburban lives that populate Happiness. If Dollhouse‘s Dawn Wiener was tortured by her peers and family, what about Happiness‘s ironically named Joy, who faces tribulations from scene 1 (Jon Lovitz tells her she’s shit) through an obscene phone call that raises her hopes, a fling with a manipulative Russian cabbie, and an ending that sees her lonely and desperate all over again?

Solondz’s characters really do go through hell, suggesting that the only thing worse than Sartre’s “other people” might just be “no other people.” Because it’s a movie about the bad, often pathetic behaviors we engage in for companionship – unless, like Ben Gazzara’s hollow patriarch, aloneness is what we really crave in the first place. One man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds solace in his violently pornographic fantasies about his neighbor, but is unable to unload his emotional baggage because his therapist (Dylan Baker) is too self-absorbed, and too busy struggling with his own obsessive pedophilia.

All these interlocking tales of misery and self-defeating spirals add up to a general impression that no one is normal: everyone, whether sexually or emotionally, nurses little fractures and deviations, right down to the apparently “happy” housewife Trish, whose husband is the pedophile. It may be an unremittingly bleak film that holds out little hope for human relationships, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable both in its abrasively comic moments and its willingness to carry out its grim premise. So I recommend this complex, depressing, very NC-17 film if only for the lesson that everyone is at least a little fucked up.

Dan Clowes illustrating Solondz's wretched ensemble: an artistic match made in heaven.

And so, in this little discussion of sex in film, I’d love to briefly single out one particularly resonant character: Kristina (Camryn Manheim), one of the neighbors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lonely sex maniac. Contrasted with the beautiful, successful Helen across the hall, Kristina is overweight, sex-phobic, and slightly unhinged (shades of Repulsion?). Often this kind of depressed, spinsterish character could devolve into stereotype, but the character’s behaviors and Manheim’s performance avert this powerfully, for as she grows closer to Hoffman, her revelations get weirder and weirder while both drawing in viewer sympathy and failing to turn Hoffman away. The most effective part might be that despite her numerous sexual hang-ups, she’s by far not the most disturbed character in the movie. So she comes across not as one extreme case but instead as one abnormal person in a world filled with them.

While considering sexuality in film (a topic for which Happiness is indeed well-suited), let me jump somewhat to another area that endlessly fascinates me: the transvestite in film. I commented briefly and superficially on this last summer (mostly with regard to Cary Grant), but now after reading a chunk of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests, I’d like to re-examine it. As part of a class on Pre-Code film, I’m about to start a research project on Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) – a film in which cross-dressing plays a prominent role.

[Mamoulian is a director who doesn’t get enough credit, considering the series of unique, beautiful films he made including Applause, a musical burlesque melodrama with dazzlingly fluid urban photography; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, probably the best filmed version of the Stevenson story, complete with an outrageously slutty Miriam Hopkins; and Love Me Tonight, a Chevalier musical in which class, gender, and logic go topsy-turvy.]

In general, female-to-male cross-dressing doesn’t get the kind of attention (or cause the same titillation) as male-to-female, and this intrigues me. Maybe it’s because when a woman assumes male dress, she’s elevating herself in terms of power and status, while a man in a dress is seen as lowering himself, rendering himself impotent and ridiculous? Look at the presentation of Roscoe in Freaks: a stuttering, effeminate parody of a patriarch, first shown dressed as a “Roman lady” alongisde the virile, all-man Hercules. According to society, dresses on men are undignified, evoking giggles and catcalls, while a woman in a suit and tie is a solemn event. Who laughs when Marlene goes in drag and kisses a woman in Morocco? Erotic, of course (it’s Josef von Sternberg, for chrissake!), but funny? Not really.

I haven’t thought too much about this particular line of reasoning, but maybe comedy is only created when the cross-dresser has to struggle to maintain the illusion. And while Garbo and Dietrich are both comfortable and confident occupying this hermaphroditic middle ground – Garbo, of course, is a defiant queen, and Dietrich is performing in a self-conscious nightclub act – maybe another great example, Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, is both not as talented or assured in her double performance, and also has more to lose should her masquerade be uncovered.

The Swedish Sphinx: a riddle of personality and gender identityMarlene, the consummate performer of alternate identities

While Garbo and Dietrich are both fully in control of their respective male impersonations, Hepburn’s Sylvia/Sylvester is young, inexperienced (both at playing male, and sex in general), and has her father’s life at risk. Garbo’s Christina may guide her disguised rendezvous with John Gilbert’s Spanish envoy, but Sylvia is prey to the desires encircling her, whether from her stepmother (taking her for a boy) or a roguish Cary Grant (confused by his attraction to her unseen femininity). Through her guise’s insecurity, these encounters result in nail-biting comedy –  will she be discovered, or will she reveal herself on her own terms?

And this is where we start to get some answers to the questions, Why study sexuality in film history? What could it possibly teach us? Examining these three texts of female-to-male transvestism from the ’30s, we see patterns regarding who can cross-dress, who can’t, and why. We wonder whether the clothes make the man, or whether a woman, in dress, suit, or neither, is still first and foremost a woman. These are questions I’m exploring right now in my WGST classes, and hopefully will be able to carry over to my work on Queen Christina. I’ve studied the Production Code and the PCA a fair amount, but I don’t know exactly what their stance on Garbo’s playful sexual antics would be, and I’m excited to find out.

So, it’s about 3 am, and I have more movies to watch (and explore gender in). But these alleys of inquiry really are endless, and I think each of them can lead to personal breakthroughs in our perception of sex, gender, and media. With so many movies out there talking about the same issues from such radically different viewpoints, there’s really no limit to the analysis you can do.

Katherine Hepburn plays the boy in Sylvia Scarlett

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Gender roles and bullshit

I’ve been thinking recently about gender differences, roles, and how they affect our lives. There is, after all, a lesson I’ve tried to communicate to children a number of times: Different men behave differently; different women behave differently; there are no absolute, gendered behavioral norms. And there are no inherent bounds saying that only men or women can do some particular activity. I mean, okay, I grant that there are some little biological and psychological differences caused by, oh, the XX or XY chromosomal difference leading to outpourings of certain quantities of certain hormones, causing a few changes in neural structures and, yeah, the genitals, too. But other than that, who’s to say that shopping is for girls and fighting is for boys?

There are all these ridiculous assumptions that are so widely accepted; that have dictated laws and standards of behavior for much of history. When, well, what’s the basis, really? “This is how it’s always been”? Girls have weak nerves and are all fickle, while guys are steadfast and direct? It’s all bullshit, more or less, and I for one am sick of it. It constrains so many lives, restricts so much behavior, puts a damper on so many dreams.

And it causes a lot of other bullshit, too: for example, in my Japanese Cinema class last term, a girl responded to a guy’s dislike of a certain movie (maybe Hula Girls) by describing it as a “chick flick.” And I, naturally, retorted, “I don’t think that good or bad movies have any gender boundaries.” And I don’t. I think that a good movie is good and a bad movie is bad, regardless of whether you’re male, female, or a hermaphrodite. I remember reading in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movies as Politics an essay about Sleepless in Seattle where he talks about how characters constantly refer to An Affair to Remember (1957) as a chick flick; Rosenbaum then points out that he and a number of other male friends love the latter film and that he can never get through it without crying. So basically, these artificial boxes of gender appeal are less than worthless when trying to accurately talk about a movie. They also tend to bring about worsening extremes of trends dreamed up to appeal more to specific genders: e.g., guys like car chases, guns, and scantily clad women; women like hot guys, steamy romance, and sappy bullshit. So why not make movies focusing solely on one set of characteristics, in order to get plenty of business from the target demographic, dismissing such concerns as an intelligent script or a point to get across? And so we hear tell of girlfriends being “dragged along” to action movies and boyfriends being forced to go to chick flicks.

As a random example of these trends, let’s take the two top-grossing movies in the nation, neither of which I’ve seen, and broadly apply these criteria. G.I. Joe: the Rise of the Cobra: action? Guns? Loud noises? Check. Julie & Julia: cooking? Emotions? Meryl Streep? Check. I think it’s pretty clear which genders these movies are for. (The third-most-popular, G-Force, must be for those sexless little subhumans called “children”.) I’d go so far as to say that these pointless gender divisions serve the interests of those faceless corporate giants I was talking about the other day. Why else have TV channels “for men” and “for women”? So they can pander their gender-specific products to the right markets, of course.

Billy Tipton, gender fugitive of the musical worldJames Barry, Victorian surgeon (and lifelong transvestite)

Of course this brings up lots of difficult little questions about what gender differences mean or what they’re worth, if they shouldn’t restrict behavior or opportunities. How can we turn these borderlines into advantages for all involved instead of walls that cordon off our lives? Instead of answering these really hard questions, I’ll veer off into another, related topic that’s fascinated me for a long time: gender ambiguity. Take, for example, two fairly notorious cases of women masquerading as men: Billy Tipton and James Barry. Both of them dressed as men both for professional advancement and in their private lives, keeping their secrets from almost the entire worlds until their deaths. Tipton dressed as a man in order to work as a jazz musician, and ended up carrying on “heterosexual” relationships with a number of women, even going on to adopt 3 children. Barry crossdressed so as to become a surgeon in 19th century Scotland and ended up travelling the world receiving many medical accolades. In both cases, their “true” gender was only discovered when they died.

So, the questions are many: how do cases like these fit into this dichotomized world we’ve constructed, where we have the pronouns “him” and “her,” where we align the word “masculine” with a collection of attributes and behaviors, and its opposite, “feminine,” with a totally distinct set? A fascinating book called Vested Interests by Marjorie Garber has directed me to a 1620 pamphlet called “Hic Mulier” (Latin for “This Woman,” but using the masculine word for “this,” hic), which condemns women who behave or dress in a masculine manner as base deformities, and worse. It’s just amusing to see how shocked and offended people get when the frameworks, however inaccurate, they have set up for perceiving the world get violated by a real-life example. Hell, I’ve personally been attacked, jokingly or otherwise, a number of times throughout my life for not fitting well enough into the established ideas about how a man should look, think, and act. I’m reminded of the comics masterpiece Fun Home when Alison Bechdel talks about Proust’s theories of homosexuals as gender “inverts” – basically, that gay men are actually women in male bodies and vice versa. It’s a belief that, in less sophisticated or meaningful manifestations, is pretty wide-spread, even turning up in the particularly insane Jack Chick tract “Wounded Children.”

Jack Chick's bizarre take on homosexuality

Earlier in the same tract, the inconsistent, self-defeating devil tells David, “You are really a little girl inside a boy.” Man, Chick has an ear for dialogue. But this inane association and confusion of homosexuality, transgender, and just behavior outside of gender norms is pretty pervasive. Hence, kids in high school who don’t like sports are gay, or sissies, or maybe even “girly,” “like a girl,” feminine, etc. You know. And they’re probably accused of having boyfriends, and insist that no, no, they’re not gay, they’d never want to be saddled with a label like that. Incidentally, if you want to see a very funny interrogation of gender roles and sexuality in high school, check out But I’m a Cheerleader from queer filmmaker Jamie Babbit. It’s a flawed movie, as Ashley and I discussed while watching it, but it does a great job of taking on issues like homophobia and the very real insanity of conversion therapy, and it has a great cast including John Waters regular Mink Stole and RuPaul dressed as a man.

Speaking of movies and gender roles, I also just wanted to mention Young Man with a Horn (1950) starring Kirk Douglas. I watched it last night, largely because I was curious to see Lauren Bacall being noticeably bisexual. And she was (having a pretty obvious dalliance with a pretty female painter), though interestingly Doris Day’s character constantly refers to her as sick, mixed-up, disturbed, etc., etc., and warns Douglas, the young trumpeter, away from her. This is pretty consistent with the tendency, at the time, to regard homosexuality as a problem, a sign of a very confused mind, and bisexuality? Well, there’s a trope for that (and one given new life by Sharon Stone in the early ’90s). It just seems interesting, odd, and illogical to me to associate attraction to a certain gender (or both) with corruption and sinfulness. I mean, heterosexual males commit a vast majority of the world’s rapes, so why isn’t there a “violent, disturbed heterosexual” stereotype?

These are a lot of difficult questions, but they’re ones we need to keep in mind. They affect us everyday, and we often don’t even realize it because these norms and expectations are so deeply ingrained into the way we think. Gender differences exist, but it’s about time we stopped plowing ahead with all our assumptions and stereotypes, and instead stopped to reconsider: is it really a “guy” or “girl” thing? Is this really something only girls have to deal with, and guys should have no interest in? Men are not from Mars; women are not from Venus (fuck you, John Gray). We’re all pretty clearly from the planet earth, we’re all the same species, and maybe some of us love the same sex, or like wearing nightgowns or having long hair or playing with dolls, dammit. Or wearing trousers, or driving trucks, or doing other stereotypically masculine shit. Each of us lives a different life and the options are not black and white, or pink and blue. I think it’s about time we’re allowed to live whatever shade we want to.

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